The House of Photography’s exhibition, “The Auschwitz Album” is not an exhibit of things nor of places, but of human beings. Entering the gallery, one cannot escape the sense that these imprisoned human beings depicted in the photographs are gaining one among their ranks. Visitors to the exhibit are invited to join them.
Displayed for the first time in Prague, the images are lined up in neat rows along two parallel walls, uniform and regimented. Separated by a battleship-grey walkway, they seem to stare at each other, and at their audience. One is struck in particular by the foreboding of the scenes portrayed, and even more so by the modest normality of their cast. A mother walking with her children along a crowded station platform, and in the background, there is a darkly prophetic image of a wooden hut, guarded by a lone soldier. This seeming normality is, however, shattered later in the same room; the same faces encountered in scenes of arrival and selection, once more greet the viewer, now with heads shaved, and clothed in striped uniform.
The almost 200 photos from “The Auschwitz Album” were taken by SS soldiers (either Ernst Hofmann or Bernhard Walter), and the faces captured are Hungarian Jews, who were deported from the Carpathia Ruthenian region of pre-war Czechoslovakia to the Auschwitz concentration camp in May 1944. Of those photographed, almost all were murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau. However, one of the few survivors, Lili Jacob, who was a Czechoslovak citizen, discovered the remarkably preserved album consisting of 56 pages in a vacated SS barrack in the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, after the camp’s liberation in 1945, and in 1980, she donated the photos to the Israeli Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem.
Prague’s exhibition of “The Auschwitz Album” is unique perhaps in that not only is the audience invited to spectate the uncomfortable conditions, but in some ways is also forced to participate. In two large rooms, one finds oneself observed from above by an audience of security cameras, followed by a stern warden overlooking the exhibition, while other gallery workers are seen from behind a glass screen. With the exception of a seemingly distant daylight peering through a group of wooden bars high above the images, the gallery is utterly devoid of natural light. The effect of this, on one hand, evokes a sense of separation from the world outside, and on the other, a feeling of connection with those you are confined alongside that makes this exhibition the haunting experience that it is.
Indeed, “The Auschwitz Album” achieves a degree of reciprocity seldom seen in exhibitions of its type. In this way, it is not simply a collection of holocaust images, but is in itself, a reflection of the people and places within those images that is accessible and engaging to the viewer. It would undoubtedly have been easy to allow the “The Auschwitz Album” simply to offer a clinical documentary of the conditions of Auschwitz, and yet the curator Martin Jelínek in cooperation with Prague City Gallery and The Jewish Museum in Prague has achieved something far more.
“The Auschwitz Album” at Prague’s House of Photography has been extended until Sunday, September 27th.
THE AUSCHWITZ ALBUM
Prague City Gallery
House of Photography, Revoluční 1006/5, Prague 1
19 May–27 September 2015, Tue–Sun 10 a.m.–6 p.m., Thu 10 a.m.–8 p.m.
Alexander Jones is a student from Anglo American University in Prague.